Sit down. Relax. I know there are rabid Sengoku fans out there who absolutely adore Paradox Interactive’s historic strategy game, and I completely understand. But look at the thumbnail. Look at the publisher. This is not the Japanese version of Crusader Kings. You may return to your homes and wait patiently, perhaps for quite a while, for that particular title to come all the way to the Nintendo Switch. If you’re here for the batshit crazy beat-em-up from SNK, then welcome, here’s Sengoku.
Before we get into the meat and potatoes of this game, it’s important to understand a little something about the era and ideas that were going on in 1991. The NEO GEO was taking games from arcade cabinets, a genre that inherently threw you into the mix with little to no preamble, and putting them onto home systems, where you need to actually set the stage and give players a bit more finesse. Rather than try and program in an introduction, SNK left the confusing jumble of stills at the beginning that depicted Japanese Gods and cowboys as it was and then wrote a whole story into the manual for players to read and appreciate. Basically, a warlord was destroyed centuries ago but has come back in modern times to attack with Feudal era ghosts and monsters. You, either a ninja or a cowboy, are the descendants of the samurai who defeated the warlord long ago, and now you can kick some ass like your great great etc. grandfathers did. It’s already kind of an insane ride to begin with, but now let’s get into the game itself.
Sengoku would have been enough as a straight forward “punch shogun ghosts” game, but that is entirely too simple. You fight three elite monsters pretty early on and, as a result, get their spirits to help you. You have the ability to turn into those spirits at any time, although this transformation comes with a ton of caveats. For one, the three are all kind of weirdly balanced. There’s a battle wolf that has a cool jump attack but really limited melee. The samurai warrior has some strong weapon swings but moves pretty slowly. And the ninja jumps and flips with the best of them, adding speed and agility, but seems pretty underpowered compared even to your non-transformed persona. Additionally, you have a limited time to be in each of the forms (though they have their own individual timers), and the timer only resets after you die. Lastly, the enemies do NOT wait patiently while you’re choosing who to change into, and I got beat to death several times while trying to figure out which skin I wanted to wear at the moment.
Into the combat, Sengoku is wildly unbalanced, but still funny. You have some monsters that go down in a single hit, some that move around with savage speed, and some that don’t seem to take “hit you with a sword” for an answer. I never felt overwhelmed with the number of monsters, and, even though many were ambling on screen at once, it didn’t seem like they were ganging up on me. Having said that, the boss battles are utter hell. Unless you’re doing co-op, you are the sole target of a large, angry demon’s rage, and they are not about to quietly allow you to brain them with your fists. This is again where I’m reminded that, with arcades, the game’s first objective is to make money, and secondary is having fun.
The gameplay is as direct and simple as the combat makes it out to be. You can move mostly anywhere around the 2D landscape, and your primary buttons are hit, jump and turn into something else. When you’re in your spiritual guise, you have the aforementioned advantages and disadvantages of each incarnation, with the added bonus that you usually can take one more hit than your standard human form. However, the human has the advantage of being able to collect powerups that are intermittently dropped by enemies and, on occasion, bestowed upon you by spirits that happen to appear after the end of a certain wave of enemies. These powerups can give you different swords, flaming balls of energy or slowly restore your health. The last one, which are green orbs, are utterly useless, as you need to collect five in order to replenish a single unit of health. Big spoiler: you’ll definitely get hit a lot in your quest to get that last orb. You can’t really fault Sengoku for not wanting to make things too easy for you, but there is plenty it already does to make things unfair.
For example, the difficulty curve isn’t that much different on one end of the scale or another, and you need to be on your best behavior because you will DIE. And I don’t mean the demoralizing but otherwise totally ok death that you usually experience in NEO GEO titles. I mean that Sengoku only lets you continue three times before telling you to piss off, enters your name and that’s the end of the game. Considering how surprisingly large the game is, this seems like a dreadfully unfair stance, and really poorly implemented. I can think of seven other games where having this “you lose, you’re done” position would make the game infinitely more interesting. However, Sengoku is not one of them, and I’m astonished that players used to be good enough to deal with the berserker AI, the poor positioning and the hilarious dialogue long enough to make it to the Warlord himself.
Although the graphics of Sengoku are pretty strong in comparison to other beat-em-ups at the time (leagues better than either Final Fight or the early Streets of Rage), the larger-than-life graphics also result in a clunky feeling, even for the svelte battle wolf. It’s got that cartoony, muscular feel that fits the game genre so well, but I want to move around and throw my weight like the best of all wrestlers, not like a “ninja” who has a 4000 calorie a day diet and often skips leg day. Still, I loved how the game frequently bounced between Earth and other realms, just haphazardly throwing you into the sky and down below to fight off more demons, and you just kind of take it. There’s great level design, and a player will never feel like they’re replaying the same scenario over and over.
At the end of the day, Sengoku is a much needed entry to the NEO GEO ports because it brings something else to the table besides fighters and shooters. I did enjoy my time with Sengoku, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I wanted to try and do better, even if my polymorphing meatsack was getting wasted time and again by multi-armed monsters with swords and sharp reflexes. It’s interesting, and fun, and definitely a good two-player experience. I don’t think there’s enough to really interest people in the caravan mode, and the time attack seems unfair to impose on a game that has a lot of long pauses for introductions in the first stage of the game. If you’re looking for a throwback thrill that asks you to use swords and fists instead of guns and magic, then Sengoku could be the tale of thwarting evil to bring old tricks to your new dog.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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